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Venice Biennale 2015

The Women Are Present

by Deanna Sirlin

Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product, Installation. Photo: Missi McMorries.

I have been a Venice Biennale junky since 1993. I cannot help it--all this contemporary art in one place, and the place being Venice . . . it is all too compelling for me to ignore. But something significant happened in this particular Biennale: there were noticeably many more women artists than usual participating, representing their countries in the national pavillions, and also in the auxiliary exhibitions and the part of the Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor.


At what point can we stop counting the number of women represented in important exhibitions? Actually, I was not counting but gleefully noticing. Rather than cover the same ground as the many reports on the Biennale published in recent weeks, I thought, why not just write about the women artists? So, here I give you my female focused overview. I have tried to include most of the women artists exhibiting; please forgive me for the ones I have missed.


Before I begin, one thing I noticed about the work of the many woman artists was that it was not pointedly feminist or dealing directly with women's issues. I think it is about time that we can look at the work and not worry if the cause is being addressed enough. I am tired of didactic and pedantic feminist exhibitions or any other exhibition where the point takes precedence over the art.

Pamela Rosenkranz, Our Product, Installation. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

That being said, I am grateful that this is a moment when there are significant exhibitions about feminist art popping up in museums around Europe. The week before the Biennale, I had the good fortune to be in Germany where I saw an excellent exhibition, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970's: Works from the Sammlung Verbund, Vienna curated by Dr. Gabriele Schor, at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The selection of work is excellent, with early works by Orlan, Martha Rosler, Lynda Benglis, Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta, Suzanne Lacy, Martha Wilson, and some thirty others. As happy as I was to see pivotal works by these important artists, I was discouraged to see that avant-garde feminism could only be defined by works that were overtly political, photographic, or video performance, excluding artists who focused on abstraction or formalism. When will great women artists such as Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, and Louise Bourgeois be included in this dialogue?


Things have changed since the 70's. Women artists are well represented in the national pavilions in the current edition of the Venice Biennale. Pamela Rosenkranz represents Switzerland with her gorgeous, sensual installation, Our Product, which takes one first into a bright, saturated sort of RGB Green LED lit room to a corridor that leads you to a giant, eye-level pool of pink gurgling liquid that is vaguely flesh evoking. Because your eyes have become used to perceiving the green, the pink seems even more intensely pink when you encounter it. Rosenkranz is interested in the chemical and the physical and where the twain do meet. Rosenkranz designed a stamp for the Swiss post that looks like a patch of skin. (This stamp is actually in use—please buy one for me!) It is a poignant and populist work of art, though it does not exactly embrace everyone, as the skin tone is decidedly Caucasian. Since it is meant to be a synthesis of skin colors from Venetian paintings, there is a nod to the place in this sumptuous work.  


Irina Nakhova, The Green Pavilion. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

On the same block in the Giardini is the Russian Pavilion where Irina Nakhova represents her country. Her multi-room installation, The Green Pavilion, a lush visual space one can enter, recalls the interactive installations she created for a room in her apartment in the 1980s. The red and green room at the top of the building is covered by a complex, floor-to-ceiling painting in a kind of red and green vibrating camouflage that is somewhat like a pared down, photo-shopped landscape. In a room on the ground floor, which can be seen from the upper storey, Nakhova has installed a powerful montage of projected video and still images that move around the walls. This room is an ”architectural 'matrix' of [famed Russian and Soviet architect Alexy] Shchusev's buildings, including Lenin's mausoleum. This matrix is filled with archive photographs, mixed with video film of natural and biological factors, at times alienating and reminding the viewer how vulnerable the artistic image of history can be.”


Chiharu Shiota, The Key in the Hand. Installation. Photo: Missi McMorries.

Just next door in our continuing quest for women artists, in Japan's pavilion, is Chiharu Shiota. Her installation, The Key In the Hand is a monumental and moving work of thousands of keys woven and hung in a web of red yarn above two wooden boats. This matrix of keys that have been donated by the public becomes a metaphor for memory and a kind of collective dream. Shiota writes about her work “everyone who provides me with their keys will overlap with my own memories.”



Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, The Ways of Folding Space & Flying (2015). HD Film Installation, 10’ 30” © the artists 

Just behind the Japanese Pavilion is Korea, represented by the artist team Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. They are included in this tour as Moon is a woman artist; their multi-channel video installation, The Ways of Folding Space & Flying, begins outside the pavilion. This futuristic video, which has everything from famous Korean actors to time travel and flying though space, is one of those haunting visual narratives that draws you in without text or language.


Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun (2015). Videoinstallation © the artist

In the German Pavilion, there are four installations by five artists. I am not sure why Germany decided to divide up their pavilion in this way but I think they enjoy playing with the format of the Biennale, as in 2013 when they switched pavilions with France. In the largest space, Hito Steyerl, a woman artist who was born in Germany and teaches in Berlin, presents a multi-level video work large in both scale and ideas. Enter the Tron-like space containing a three-dimensional blue grid of light and filled with beach and lawn chairs for viewers to sit on, and become part of the 23-minute installation. Steyerl sets the stage for Factory of the Sun which combines aspects of cinema, music video, and video game by mixing green screen rendition with dancing, narrative, and people and places real and imagined, all yearning for the light. Out on the Street, the quieter but no the less provocative video by the team of Jasmina Metwaly (woman artist) and Philip Rizk, deals with the privatization of a factory in Cairo, Egypt, where they live, and its impact.


Sarah Lucas, Deep Cream Maradona. Photo: Missi McMorries.

Around the bend is Great Britain's pavilion with Sarah Lucas' I SCREAM DADDIO. In yellow painted rooms Lucas's sculptures, some of which are also yellow, scream sex, poke a finger at Koons's balloon animals, and reference the reclining figures of Henry Moore, who represented Britain at the Biennale in 1948. TAS will publish a longer review of this work in our next issue.

Rêvolutions by artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is an installation of trees with their roots wrapped in burlap casings centered in the space of the French Pavilion.


Camille Norment, who represents Norway in the Nordic Pavilion, was born in the US but has lived and worked in Oslo for the last ten years. In her installation Rapture, she uses a glass harmonica and a chorus of twelve female voices to create sound; she quotes from Arne Nordheim: “music lives in the span between poetry and catastrophe.” This work strikes the balance between beauty and terror that Norment is striving for.


Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time. Installation. Photo: Missi McMorries.

Fiona Hall is the artist representing Australia in their new pavilion. Her Wrong Way Time fills the dark space of the pavilion with objects made of money, bread, tin or knitted wool like a large cabinet of curiosities. There are reconstructed coo coo clocks, currency painted with botanical forms in gouache, and sculptures made of fish tins all shown in museum cases or on the dark walls of the pavilion. This work was like an ethnographic museum mixed with a kind of political and pointed folk art. TAS will cover this pavilion in greater depth in our next issue as well.


Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou presented her installation Agrimika or Why Look At Animals? Papadimitriou has transported a shop specializing in leather from the town of Volos to the Greek Pavilion. This store she walked by everyday becomes a found object in the tradition of Duchamp. Placing a piece of reality in a different context in this way generates new and complex meanings.


The Polish Pavillion presents the work of the artist team of C. T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska. Halka/Haiti °48’05”N 72°23’01”W is a panoramic video documentation of the opera Halka by Stanisław Moniuszko staged in a small mountain town in Haiti. This lushly beautiful image of Haiti with an operatic soundtrack that juxtaposes identity and colonization has shared meanings for these two countries.


In the Giardini, where most the pavilions are located, is the pavilion of United States of America which has chosen seminal figure Joan Jonas as its representative. Jonas is one of the most significant performance and video artists, and her very personal work is titled They Come to Us without a Word. This spiritual reading of nature, presented in a multilayered installation of drawings, video and objects, comes from Jonas's knowledge of painting. This compelling work will be written about more fully in our next issue. 

Marlene Dumas, Skulls (2013-15). Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Many women artists, including some of the best in the Biennale, are represented in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavillion, which hold the curated part of the Biennale, All the World's Futures. An intense collection of small paintings of skulls by Margaret Dumas wraps around a gallery. A video, sculpture, and collages make up a rich configuration by Wangechi Mutu. Ellen Gallagher shows some brilliant new works juxtaposed with one by Australian artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Adrian Piper won a Golden Lion for her chalkboard paintings with text here. Sonia Boyce has an intriguing video she made of Astronautalis, a white male rapper, and Elaine Mitchner, a performance artist, performing in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Mika Rottenberg has a poignant and funny video and installation which is like a politicized fairy tale narrative about the pearl industry. Chantal Ackerman has a layered video work that takes one on a journey. Katrina Grosse has created a large painted installation with broken concrete and fabric. Lorna Simpson has some brilliant new works that deviate from her well-known works, using shades of black and grey with an expressionistic hand. Taryn Simon was created an installation of books and pressed botanica titled Paperwork and the Will of Capital

Katrina Gross, Untitled Trumpet (2015). Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, Video Installation (2015). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ellen Gallagher. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Ellen Gallagher and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Photo: Missi McMorries.

Adrian Piper, Everything #21 (2010-2013). Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Wangechi Mutu, The End of carrying All (2015).  Photo: Missi McMorries.

Lorna Simpson, Three Figures (2014). Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Auxiliary shows also feature significant women artists. Jenny Holzer is exhibiting her War Paintings at the Correr Museum in St. Mark's Square. Ursula Von Rydingsvard has a meditative installation in a garden by the lagoon between the Giardini and the Arsenale. Von Rydingsvard's work, presented by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, seems as if it's from another planet in its quiet relationship to nature in the midst of all the Biennale buzz. Holzer's paintings also seem out of the Biennale loop as they are quietly in dialogue with the lush space of the rooms of the Correr Museum. And seeing Holzer in the context of a museum that dates from Napoleonic times give one significant pause.


The list of women artists gos on and on. I would like to include them all. However, I guess this proves Baselitz wrong in his rantings about why women artists do not succeed.

Jenny Holzer, War Paintings, Museo Correr, Venice, Italy. Installation View. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Elegantka (2013–14), Urethane resin. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Deanna Sirlin

Milton, Georgia 2015


Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist.

Missi McMorries photographed the Venice Biennale for TAS. She is a collector of contemporary art.

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